Latika Nath is the first woman wildlife biologist in India to hold a doctorate on tigers. She was recently appointed as the first ambassador for the responsible tourism society of India. She is an award-winning conservationist, TV presenter and researcher. She is popularly known as Tiger Princess for her work in the field of tiger conservations. Nath speaks with the Patriotabout the impact of lockdown on animal conservation, human-big cat conflicts — especially leopards, balanced ecology and captive breeding of wildlife
Is Coronavirus lockdown damaging conservation efforts?
Yes, conservation is supported in many parts of the world by tourism. With less tourism comes lack of income for people living around the edges of parks. We have seen, in India, the increase in cases of poaching for bushmeat during the Covid-19 lockdown. Another important problem is that the money that was available for conservation is now being directed toward fighting Covid-19. That affected the conservative efforts.
Do you think Covid-19 lockdown has increased illegal killings of wildlife animals?
I think the only effect of Covid on wildlife (in that sense) is humans have been under lockdown and animals have come out more during the day. You get to see them more; sometimes this has resulted in reaction from the public but mostly Covid or lockdown itself have not resulted in more wildlife being killed.
Human-big cat conflicts are the result of habitat loss for wild animals. Human encroachment of forested land is the major reason for this. Can you explain in brief?
Population is rising, we are creating villages and cities in those areas where once were only jungles. Humans habitations also occupy water bodies, consequently it impacts availability of natural food for these big cats.
Carnivorous animals are left with no options but to enter human habitation.
Leopards, in many places in India, are living around human habitations for many years without creating much trouble. The problem gets created when humans attack them out of fear — leopards in such cases retaliate to save themselves.
If we talk of tigers, they only consider humans as their natural prey when they are too old to hunt, when they are injured and when the mother tigress hunts humans and her cubs learn not to fear humans. In these scenarios, tigers are involved in man-eating and then human tigers conflict occurs.
In Sundarban regions where people never hunted tigers, tigers of that region do not fear humans.
Big cats also attack cattle. In this case the issue of compensation occurs. When big cats attack cattle in the protected park area, the government does not pay the compensation because the government considers it to be your fault that you entered a protected area. But when they attack them out of these areas or in human habitats, the government pays.
But that compensation is not 100 percent, the government pays some amount. For that amount too, villagers have to follow producers. Villagers who lose cattle are mostly illiterate and due to bureaucratic lengthy processes, can’t get compensation. But efforts are being made in this regard. Many people are working for this cause.
This is the overall scenario of human-big cat conflict in India.
Nearly 200 leopards are killed in India every year. What do you think should be done in order to save this animal?
Major efforts should be made to teach people to live with leopards. Leopards have been living in and around human habitations. People should know how to react to them, people should be taught how to minimise conflicts.
It is also needed to understand that leopards commonly prey on feral dogs because their natural prey is getting less and less — that is why they wander so much. Efforts to increase the number of natural prey of leopards and also removing feral dogs will reduce their encroachment into human settlements.
Recently, the draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020 was released. It proposes a relaxed timeline and frequency for submitting compliance reports. This is done to promote ease of doing business. How do you respond to that?
Environment impact assessments need to be more stringent, we cannot relax on compliance at all. Government should be more vigilant for these compliances and no shortcuts should be allowed at any point.
What is the way to strike a balance between development and healthy ecology?
With sharply increasing human population like we have in India and growing demand for land, greater infrastructure and development, it is very important that policymakers understand that economy does not come before ecology but both are equal arms of development of any nation. So, they need to understand that a huge component of development plans needs to ensure the sustainable continuance of natural resources. We also tend to ignore the values of services given to us by the natural ecosystem — whether it be carbon absorption, whether it be giving us water, pure air to breath and hundreds other things. We need to find a way to actually come up with numbers for these, so people understand just how important it is to protect the ecosystem which is giving us all of these services and it is on continual existence of these services, life on earth depends.
As the world faces this pandemic, do you think it is high time to create awareness around zoonotic diseases? How should it be done?
This is not the first time that the world has had an epidemic due to zoonotic disease — SARS, Ebola, and swine flu are all diseases that are started from wild sources. I don’t think it is practical to stop the small bush game eating in traditional societies but large wild wet markets should be stopped. By and large, animals bred for eating in captivity are relatively free from these diseases. But when we go in the wild, we need to control how these species are kept and caught and under which conditions in wet markets.
What is your opinion about animals in captivity? Do you think zoos should exist?
Captive breeding of the animals is really important for the long term and in many cases helped in recovery of the dwindling wildlife populations. Well planned zoological parks with their research on animal health, animal breeding and animal welfare have greatly added to being able to manage wild populations. So yes, they should continue, however badly planned zoological parks where animals are kept in small cages with improper facilities and under inhuman conditions should be immediately closed and redesigned.
(Cover: Latika Nath is popularly known as ‘Tiger Princess’ for her work in the field of tiger conservations // Credit: Latika Nath)